The hospitality sector in Himachal Pradesh is hoping for a revival after months of crippling lockdown due to the pandemic.
It’s half past noon on October 2, and a family of four has just walked into a cafe on Mall Road in the heart of tiny hill town of Kasauli.
Navneet Sahu, who runs the little eatery, is elated to see customers beginning to trickle back, even as he is concerned that his joy would be short-lived and limited to the ‘extended weekend’ that has brought a sizeable rush of tourists to the hill town, known as the Queen of the Hills.
“Tourists have started to visit after travel restrictions were eased recently by the government. But it’s nothing compared to the numbers before the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Since March end, the business has come to a standstill. A long weekend starting with Gandhi Jayanti holiday this week is a good sign as tourists have started to visit,” said Mr. Sahu, who is busy preparing the food order for his customers, alongwith one helper.
“At this time of the day, on weekends especially, my cafe use to be full to capacity, but today most of the tables are lying vacant. Only a few people are stepping in to eat. Many are bringing packed food given fears over the coronavirus,” added Mr. Sahu.
The hospitality industry in Himachal Pradesh has been severely affected due to the pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions. The State government allowed unrestricted entry into the State from mid-September, which has come as a big relief for the hard-hit tourism sector.
The hoteliers, however, assert that in the immediate future they are focusing on merely breaking even. Other sections of the industry, including taxi drivers, tourist guides, dhabas and small restaurants are pinning their hopes on a revival of the hotels.
“It will take sometime to get things back to normal. So far there have only been ‘walk-in’ tourists. The ‘royal’ client is not coming right now. At this time of the year we usually had good number of tourists from West Bengal during the Dushera-Durga Puja holidays. But this year, there have been no advance bookings, which shows people are not keen to travel,” said U. Sharma of Ros Common, a Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation hotel.
“On weekends though people from neighbouring Punjab and Haryana have started coming to the hill stations. We are hopeful that business will increase but so far, it’s only marginal even though we are offering upto 40% discounts,” he added.
Sharing his concerns, Deepak Sharma, who runs a dhaba on the Kasauli-Dharmpur road, said the though the weekend business had resumed, the overall sales were well below the pre-COVID period.
Lack of workers has also impacted the industry, with many having returned to their homes during the extended lockdown.
“Even though people have started visiting, we are not in position to cater to them. Earlier I had around dozen staffers working here. But now we are just four people, including myself. We don’t have money to pay salaries.. there has been no work since months now,” he said.
No takers for taxis
Ranjeet Bhagana, who runs a taxi in Kasauli town worried over the uncertain tourism business, which he depends on for a livelihood.
“I purchased a new car in February this year on loan. But there has been no work for months now. Tourists have started coming to the town but most of them are on their own vehicles. Hardly anyone one is hiring taxis. Unless the tourist buses start again I don’t think I’ll get any work. I am paying ₹10,500 every month towards the loan — I am borrowing money from my father, who is a retired government employee. When I started to run my taxi, I use to earn ₹1,000-1,200 every day. But now there are no takers for taxi services,” says an anxious Mr Bhagana said.
“The government should waive permit and token taxes at least so that there’s some relief for people who are into the taxi business,” said Kuldeep Kumar, another taxi operator, who has been hit hard.
According to government data, as on December 31, 2019, the State had 3,679 registered hotels with a bed capacity of about 1,03,053. In addition, there are about 2,189 home stay units having about 12,181 beds. In 2019, 1.72 crore tourists visited the State including 1.68 crore domestic visitors and 3.83 lakh foreigners.
Vice-president of the Kasauli Hotels and Resident Welfare Association Rocky Chimni said the State government had allowed hotels to open without any restrictions from mid-September, and since then most of the hotels have reopened in the town and surrounding area.
“Tourists have started visiting over weekends and weekdays as well and more are coming from Delhi and Punjab. The corporate business has taken a hit as conferences etc., are not taking place. We are hoping that we will be close to break-even point as the number of tourists increase. In comparison to last year in the same period the hotels in Kasauli are having 40% less occupancy,” he said.
President of the Shimla Hotel and Restaurant Association Sanjay Sood said the State government has not come to the aid of the industry.
“Garbage bills, water, electricity bills are coming even when units have been shut. Even though State borders have been open there are very few tourists apart from the weekends. The industry is trying to survive without much help from the government. Most of the units are not running on full staff strength as there’s little business,” he said.
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